Robert Heinlein at 100

How the science fiction master created the template for our looser, hipper, more pluralist world.


The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein's 100th birthday is July 7. Despite his visions of near-immortals and cryogenic sleep, he didn't live to see it. He died in 1988, mourned by millions of readers who saw him more as a father or a guru than merely as a spinner of captivating tales.

Fans plan to celebrate his centennial at a conference in Kansas City, near Heinlein's birthplace, in July. Among those who will be paying him homage are Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), whose past includes stints as both a hippie folksinger and a Reagan speechwriter.

That pair of devotees says something about the range of Heinlein's influence. His influence on science fiction almost goes without saying; when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America chose their field's first Grand Master, Heinlein was the easy choice. But Heinlein was bigger than his literary genre. Following him could lead you to seemingly contradictory places, from the military to a free-love commune.

Heinlein venerated the armed forces, most notoriously in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which celebrated an elite military order. Just two years later, he was publishing the counterculture classic Stranger in a Strange Land, with its simultaneously beatific, sexy, and heroic vision of Martian-inspired communal living. A rich mix of bohemian and straight-arrow values, Heinlein's unique take on American individualism made him the bridge between such disparate '60s icons as Barry Goldwater and Charles Manson.

Heinlein's novels and short stories reflected the rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message associated with Goldwater and the conservative movement he sparked. At the same time, his writings exuded the communal desire to live in blissful togetherness, ignoring the repressive sexual and religious mores of bourgeois America. With a libertarian vision that appealed to individualists of both the left and the right, Heinlein not only set the template for the American 1960s but helped create the looser, hipper, more pluralist world of the decades since.

Whether we're looking at post-Star Wars pop culture, post-Reagan politics, or the day-to-day tenor of our own lives in the Internet age, it's easy to see that while more literary novelists such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow enjoy high-flying critical reputations, it's Heinlein's fingerprints that mark the modern world.

Heinlein the Soldier
Heinlein was born in 1907 in Butler, Missouri, the son of a farm equipment salesman. Family connections with the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City won him an appointment to Annapolis. He identified proudly with the Navy for the rest of his life, although he was retired in 1934 because of tuberculosis, just five years into his active service.

Heinlein sold his first S.F. story in 1939 and almost instantly became the acknowledged king of his field, under the tutelage of legendary Astounding editor John Campbell. In the Campbell era, with Heinlein leading the way, the S.F. magazines moved from didactic travelogues and amateurish intergalactic epics to intelligent treatments of politics, religion, and sociology. Heinlein was also the first S.F. writer to break into respectable "slick" fiction magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post after World War II, and he spearheaded the first sober space travel movie, Destination Moon (1950), in which private enterprise-beating back objections from early advocates of a sort of "precautionary principle," who feared it was to unsafe even to try-makes it to the moon.

Most important, from 1947 to 1958 Heinlein wrote a series of S.F. novels for boys, published by Scribner's, that seemed to make it into every high school and elementary school library. From book to book their scope widened, starting with plucky, capable boys making a simple moon flight (Rocket Ship Galileo) and progressing across the solar system, presenting young men fighting revolutions on Venus (Between Planets), farming on Ganymede (Farmer in the Sky), navigating interstellar starships (Starman Jones), and finally defending the human race before an alien tribunal (Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

These coming-of-age adventure tales imagined an anti-xenophobic world in which aliens were lovable, inscrutable, and often wiser than men-although, for all that, occasionally dangerous. Those books lie close to the heart of almost everyone who went on to love or write science fiction, or to work to make its space travel dreams come true.

As the 1950s ended, Heinlein wrote a final boys' novel, Starship Troopers. Scribner's rejected it, finding it inappropriate for its intended youth market. It tells the story of a young man who finds his place in the world by joining the Mobile Infantry, going through the travails of training, and eventually fighting a war against sinister, implacable alien bugs whose ant-like lack of individuality was an unmistakable metaphor for communism.

Troopers was published in 1959, just before Barry Goldwater made his first big national splash with his 1960 manifesto Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater's appeal had two things in common with Heinlein's: an individualist sense that Americans were being overmanaged and overpampered by an out-of-control federal government, and a belief that those rotten commies needed to get it, good and hard.

Heinlein was influenced by the same Cold War realities that inspired Goldwater. Even in the 1930s, during his brief involvement with Upton Sinclair's left-wing End Poverty in California movement, Heinlein had always been a staunch individualist (and somewhat of an elitist). His novels were peopled by super-competent men and women struggling against repressive governments and hidebound bureaucracies, not to mention more literal threats to their individuality, such as brain-controlling slugs from Saturn's moon Titan (in his 1951 Red Scare metaphor The Puppet Masters).

The struggle part was key to Heinlein's thought. In the 1950s, he viewed Soviet communism as a threat to individualism that needed to be combated by nearly any means necessary. (A draft, which he regarded as slavery under any circumstances, was not one of them.) One of his central ideas, repeated over and over again, was that man is the most dangerous beast in the universe. Thus, he saw no probable peaceful end to the Cold War. Preparing for a nuclear war he saw as bordering on inevitable was, he believed, an American's prime duty. In 1958 he bought newspaper ads calling for the formation of "Patrick Henry Leagues" to push this idea. (Among other things, the ads stated that "higher taxes" were a price worth paying to beat the Soviets.)

The novel that arose from this sense of mission, Starship Troopers, strikes many readers as overly militaristic, bordering on fascist. The S.F. writer and Nation critic Thomas Disch wrote that the book caused "so many of [Heinlein's] critics" to pin a "totalitarian" label on him. (Disch kindly said that "authoritarian" is more apt.) Troopers posited that a ruthless military was an inescapable aspect of human civilization, and it presented approvingly a society in which only veterans of public service could vote.

Heinlein's detractors ignored the fact that military service made up only a small portion of that public service. The novel kept its occasional paeans to authority and discipline strictly within the military context, not meant to apply to all human relations. It also explained that active military men were not permitted to hold public office and were in fact held in low regard by the rest of the culture.

The choice to enter the service and earn the franchise was both voluntary and rare. The society in Troopers was, despite such a restricted democracy, one where "personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits." Still, Heinlein's insistence on the importance and glory of the military, and of often brutal discipline within that context, left him, as Disch wrote, "able to amaze and appall the liberal imagination like almost no other SF writer."

Heinlein the Hippie
The anti-communist, pro-military message of Troopers might seem to suggest that Heinlein stood firmly on the right wing of the larger American individualist tradition. But Troopers appeared as Heinlein was in the middle of writing another novel, one that painted a very different picture.

The interrupted novel became his breakthrough both as a successful "mainstream" writer and as a public influence. It was Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human being raised by Martians who returns to Earth and begins a new religion of free love.

His name is Valentine Michael Smith, and he's brought back to Earth as a total naïf. He falls under the wings of a Heinlein stand-in, a popular fiction writer and curmudgeon named Jubal Harshaw. After many entertaining geopolitical machinations, lots of "everything you know is wrong"-style lectures from Harshaw, and a stint as a carnie, Smith starts a new religion which avers to each and every one of us that "Thou Art God."

Smith has the superhuman ability to, among other things, make both enemies and clothes disappear with just a thought. He teaches that casual sex with your "water brothers" (anyone you choose to share water with–a precious gesture on a desiccated Mars) is in Smith's words "a goodness," not a sin.

Stranger became a slow-burning bestseller, presaging the collapse of traditional sexual and religious mores in the 1960s. It gave the counterculture vocabulary the Martian word grok, that very '60s term meaning really, really understanding something, man, so that you and it were, like, as one. The novel presaged, among other things, the rise of charismatic non-Christian popular cults such as Transcendental Meditation and Scientology. Through Harshaw's lectures and Smith's attempts to teach repressed Earthlings a more loving, open way to live, it opened up the minds of many readers to an observation from George Bernard Shaw that Heinlein adored: that only a barbarian "believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature."

Stranger became a prop in youthful pads across the country. Unlike most such books that marked the owner as hip, this one actually presented a model, long before many American kids would actually try to put it into effect, of communal living. Many would-be "nests" arose, including a neopagan group that explicitly named itself after Smith's Church of All Worlds. Many of these seekers wrote Heinlein letters addressing him as "father" and requesting spiritual guidance. He found this disconcerting.

In 1967 David Crosby wrote a Stranger-inspired song of group love called "Triad" that name-checks "water brothers," and Crosby still enthusiastically considers Heinlein a personal hero. There are echoes of Stranger in the credo of the counterculture bible the Whole Earth Catalog, with its matter-of-fact declaration that "we are as gods and might as well get good at it." ("We all read Robert Heinlein's epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," catalog founder Stewart Brand later wrote. "Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein's contempt for centralized authority.") With the spirit of Valentine Michael Smith ruling the anti-establishment arenas of the '60s, it was almost inevitable that Ed Sanders, in his book The Family, would declare that Charles Manson modeled his cult on Smith's "nests" of communally living, free-loving, Nietzschean saints.

Heinlein had the claim investigated and found that Manson himself had neither interest in nor knowledge of the book. Still, one of Manson's ladies had named her baby after Smith. A Manson girl also, according to Heinlein's posthumous collection of letters, Grumbles From the Grave, wrote to the Heinleins from jail seeking help. And though Manson was not a fan himself, his vision of antinomian communal living-including the part about killing those you thought needed killing, which Smith was able to do just by willing it-was clearly one way to read Stranger.

In the novel, Smith's new religion angers hidebound humans unwilling to grok the goodness of moving beyond traditional families and even traditional property-an unnecessary expedient among true water brothers, who can successfully and unjealously share. The book ends with Smith becoming a willing martyr, dying to make men both holy and free. That spirit of fighting to the death against a mad culture flowed strong through the upheaval of the '60s, from the peaceful kid sticking a flower in a rifle to the one setting a bomb in a recruitment center.

Heinlein the Libertarian
This one-two punch of curious, powerful novels seems to indicate two opposing strains of thought. But to Heinlein, these dueling visions-a world of sinister alien bugs fought off by powerfully disciplined soldiers, and a beatific Man from Mars teaching humanity how to love freely-had the same message, as he once wrote to his fellow S.F. writer Alfred Bester: "That a man, to be truly human, must be unhesitatingly willing at all times to lay down his life for his fellow man. Both [novels] are based on the twin concepts of love and duty-and how they are related to the survival of our race."

That quote, from a man so proud of his love of freedom he once joked that "Ayn Rand is a bloody socialist compared to me," shows yet another side to the Heinlein paradox. As a literary influence on the emerging libertarian movement, Heinlein was second only to Rand.

Yet that statement of self-sacrifice and duty to the species seems as un-Randian as you can get. Heinlein, a human chauvinist, always believed freedom and responsibility were linked. But he would never have thought it proper to impose the duty he saw as the highest human aspiration.

Heinlein once told a visitor, "I'm so much a libertarian that I have no use for the whole libertarian movement." Although never in lockstep with every libertarian attitude, Heinlein's fictions seemed derived from libertarianism before the modern movement even fully existed. Before books like Rand's Fountainhead and F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom sparked the modern libertarian movement in the mid-'40s, Heinlein had published a novelette, "Coventry," about a world whose government was based on a freely entered covenant that said that "no possible act, nor mode of conduct, was forbidden to you, as long as your action did not damage another."

Heinlein's other contributions to the libertarian zeitgeist include one of the epigrams of the gun rights movement, "an armed society is a polite society"-a line first published in his 1942 serial Beyond This Horizon. He was also a direct intellectual influence on many important libertarians. David Friedman, author of the anarcho-capitalist classic The Machinery of Freedom, considered Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress vital to his intellectual evolution. (One of Moon's heroes was a professor advocating "rational anarchy," partially based on Heinlein's one-time neighbor, Robert LeFevre, founder of the libertarian Rampart College.) David Nolan, founder of the Libertarian Party, got his start in political activism in 1960 sporting a self-made "Heinlein for President" button. Another Heinlein devotee was Robert Poole, longtime editor of Reason and founder of the Reason Foundation, one of the first institutions to try to effect libertarian change in the real world in a practical manner. Poole's efforts could be seen as a legacy of Heinlein's interest in the nuts and bolts of how his imagined societies would actually function.

Even though he adopted the Milton Friedmanite phrase "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" as a slogan for his revolutionaries fighting colonial oppression in Moon, Heinlein was not deeply embedded in the economic strain of libertarianism, which stresses the importance of spontaneous order, the failures of central planning, and the efficiency of free markets. As the economist Robert Rogers has argued, Heinlein's fiction seemed to believe that it took Great Men or a single mind (sometimes human, sometimes computer) to make sure economies ran well. In a 1973 interview with the libertarian writer J. Neil Schulman, Heinlein was doubtful when Schulman referred to the greater efficiency of free markets. "I don't think the increase in efficiency on the part of free enterprise is that great," Heinlein said. "The justification for free enterprise is not that it's more efficient, but that it's free."

Heinlein was, then, his own kind of libertarian, one who exemplified the libertarian strains in both the Goldwater right and the bohemian left, and maintained eager fan bases in both camps. A gang of others who managed the same straddle, many of them Heinlein fans, split in 1969 from the leading conservative youth group, Young American for Freedom, in what some mark as the beginnings of a self-conscious libertarian activist movement. In a perfectly Heinleinian touch, the main sticking point between the libertarian and conservative factions was one of Heinlein's bêtes noires: resistance to the draft, which he hated as much as he loved the bravery of the volunteer who would fight for his culture's freedom or survival.

Heinlein the Iconoclast
The prominence of his juvenile novels and his galvanizing effect on so many adolescent fans have led many critics to condemn Heinlein's work as inherently unworthy of serious adult attention. As one scholar, Elizabeth Anne Hull, has written, "In an attempt to account for the extraordinary popularity and influence of the novels of Robert Heinlein, it would be all too easy to assert that the masses are asses and let it go at that. Those of us academics who read Heinlein are likely to admit it with an apology [and consider] our weakness in enjoying his work a minor character defect." Heinlein is indeed best approached when young, because his work appeals to that eternal youthful question: How should you live as you grow into a culture you did not make?

Heinlein does this best via his defining characteristic, one that bridges the apparent divides in his work. As William Patterson, the author of a forthcoming two-volume biography of Heinlein, told me, the best way to understand Heinlein in toto is as a full-service iconoclast, the unique individual who decides that things do not have to be, and won't continue, as they are.

That iconoclastic vision is at the heart of Heinlein, science fiction, libertarianism, and America. Heinlein imagined how everything about the human world, from our sexual mores to our religion to our automobiles to our government to our plans for cultural survival, might be flawed, even fatally so.

It isn't a quality amenable to pigeonholing, or to creating a movement around "What would Heinlein do?" As Heinlein himself said of his work, it was "an invitation to think-not to be-lieve." He created a body of writing, and helped forge a modern world, that is fascinating to live in because of, not in spite of, its wide scope and enduring contradictions.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown) and Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs). He wrote about Heinlein in The Science Fiction Film Reader (Limelight Editions), edited by Gregg Rickman.

Discuss this article online.